Spring training is a dangerous time for predictions. So little of what we see in spring action carries over into the regular season that it’s far too early to get excited. Process matters more than results, so it’s wise to focus more on cut and dried changes players have made, as opposed to worrying over such small amounts of innings and plate appearances. Still, for players coming back from long layoffs, or prospects facing major league caliber competition for the first time, even the small sample size results may at least be interesting.
We’re not going to touch on much in depth, but hey, Riley Greene looks good. Austin Meadows and Jonathan Schoop have been scuffling early on. Javy Báez, Matt Boyd, and Michael Lorenzen all look fine. In general, veteran players ease themselves into the grind in their own ways and don’t require much concern at this point no matter what the results look like on the field.
The new guys, Matt Vierling and Nick Maton, have impressed at the plate so far and look primed to add some dimension to the Tigers’ offense this season. Beau Brieske and Joey Wentz, the likely sixth and seventh man on the starting depth chart, haven’t really had their command yet, though Wentz and his new cutter looked fairly impressive against the Twins on Sunday. Finally, prospect Andre Lipcius is pressing Ryan Kreidler and Cesar Hernandez for the remaining utility infielder spot on the roster, but there’s obviously a long way to go before that decision is made.
As with everything in spring training, particularly this early in March, it’s worth reminding ourselves not to get carried away. So let’s just talk about things that have stood out in the early going and reporting out of camp.
We’ve got to kick things off with Sheriff Jake. After a year and a half away from the action due to UCL reconstruction, his arm is healthy and his moustache is thick, but no one really knew what to expect from his bat. Donny Sands was a popular choice for Eric Haase’s backup coming into camp, with the idea that Rogers might need some AB’s in Toledo before he’d be fully up to speed. So far, Rogers isn’t having it.
Another homer on Sunday, his third already in Grapefruit League play, seized the team lead and left him behind only Seattle Mariners prospect, Jarred Kelenic, who looks to have figured it out, for the most homers this spring. it was a particularly impressive shot against a fourseamer up and away, a pitch Rogers has struggled against at times. For good measure he also strafed an opposite field double against the Twins and cut down a stolen base attempt along the way. This is a very positive development after a lot of concern over the Tigers’ catching group this offseason.
Rogers has always been kind of a three true outcomes hitter, so we’ll see how this translates in season. Unless things have really changed, he’s still going to mash lefties but struggle with tougher right-handers and remain prone to the occasional slump. However, so far he’s picked up right where he left off in 2021, and he and Eric Haase, also swinging a fairly hot bat so far, could be a surprisingly dangerous duo.
Our sixth-ranked Tigers prospect didn’t get much respect this offseason. He wasn’t really featured in any honorable mentions as reports on the system flowed out from the national prospect sites. Meadows the younger has been undeterred, impressing with his power and defense in the early going.
While Austin has been a little sluggish in terms of production, Parker has been out here showing off the power. He’s already got a pair of home runs and a pair of doubles through just 18 AB’s this spring. One of those doubles came against a lefty and as a left-handed hitters, dealing with southpaws remains the key issue Meadows still needs to address. Meadows has also struck out seven times without a walk, so it hasn’t all been great, but for his first look at major league camp in a position where he’s expected to debut this summer, he’s definitely made a positive impression.
For pitchers coming back from UCL reconstruction surgery, there need to be allowances made. Even with a long rehab phase, regaining full command can take time. So we’re not going to judge Spencer Turnbull too intensely until the season is well underway. So far though, he looks good as new.
The fastball mix was popping at 94-95 mph in his return to action on Saturday, and the slider was pretty sharp as well. If Turnbull can pick up where he left off in 2021, the Tigers suddenly have a potential Cy Young contender back in the rotation, and that group is going to be quite a bit better than the projection systems estimate.
Another name trying to find a way onto the major league roster is former Baltimore Orioles corner infield prospect Tyler Nevin. Lacking the kind of high end pop teams look for at those positions, particularly first base, he really needs to be an on-base machine and get to as much of his average power as possible to have much of a major league career.
So far he’s done a nice job, cracking a pair of homers. He doesn’t really look much different than he did in Baltimore, so I wouldn’t go getting excited yet. The Tigers would no doubt hate to have to send Torkelson to Triple-A to try and get it going. Tork has been quiet so far but has only had about four games worth of plate appearances. Control of all of this still rests entirely on Torkelson’s bat, but in the early going Nevin is trying to let the Tigers know they may have another option.
After two partial seasons of major league work, former top prospect Matt Manning has established himself as a solid starting pitcher. However, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy and his full potential remains untapped. Every time he starts to put it together, a minor injury has brought that progress to a screeching halt. To address that, Manning and the Tigers are working on his delivery and trying to recapture the natural athleticism he had as a young pitching prospect fresh out of high school.
Manning made his debut on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates and his velocity readings raised eyebrows as he sat 89-90 mph throughout the two innings of work. Turns out this is part of Manning, Chris Fetter and new assistant pitching coach and biomechanics specialist Robin Lund’s design. As covered in this recent Detroit Free Press piece by Evan Petzold, they’re adjusting Manning’s mechanics from the ground up, and trying to ingrain some new movement patterns before he starts turning it loose in the regular season.
Manning opened up about his development to reporters, lamenting that for most of his time in the minors, he was given very little direction other than to compete and win minor league ball games. As a result, Manning worked on his command but otherwise simply went out and dominated minor league hitters with his fastball. Developing and improving his secondary pitches and approach weren’t really emphasized.
“I wish in the minor leagues they would have told me more,” Manning, now 25, said. “Just like, ‘Go out and throw 50% curveballs. We don’t care what happens, but you got to work on your curveball.’ Instead, I knew I could beat the minor leagues with my fastball, so that’s all I did.
Fetter and Lund have made some adjustments to Manning’s mechanics, trying to limit his tendency to jump down the mound onto his front side. He has extremely good balance and flexibility, but the huge stride length and early weight shift would force his hips open early, losing the coil too soon. His upper body did a lot of compensating to make it work. Essentially they’re trying to get him stacked over his right leg longer.
That change is expected to be good for his overall arm health as well as his velocity. It also sets him up for better release of his curveball, which is the other big point of emphasis for him right now. If he can make these adjustments now and ingrain them, he should be in good shape. As long as Manning is healthy he’s already a solid major league starter, but there remains potential for a lot more. This is a really big year for him to prove that out. We’ll be watching to see how his velocity and command respond to the mechanical adjustments they’re making.
Manning will get the start on Monday against the Boston Red Sox. That one will be broadcast on MLB.tv, so
Yes, it’s very early, but we’d be remiss if we failed to note that Spencer Torkelson looks very much the same hitter we saw struggle in 2022. Through 16 AB’s he has a pair of singles, several deep fly outs, and six strikeouts. He isn’t chasing out of the zone, but we’ve also watched him whiff on several average fastballs right down the middle that he clearly recognized. Of course, we’re only talking about four game’s worth of plate appearances here. Let’s not stress ourselves out much just yet.
The Tigers’ top position player prospect hasn’t seen a lot of action in major league camp yet, but he’s made his appearances count. Keith still hasn’t played above the A-ball levels, other than arguably the Arizona Fall League, so he’s not in the mix to make the active roster. A home run and a pair of doubles in just eight plate appearances has served notice already that the 21-year-old infielder’s time is coming, and possibly much sooner than the 2024 projections.
After a strange and disappointing first season with the Tigers, lefty Eduardo Rodriguez has made a statement early in camp. His velocity and command of all three pitches has looked in midseason form as he preps to join Team Venezuela in the WBC over the next few weeks. Whatever the personal issues that kept him off the field for a few months last season, Rodriguez still looks like a good signing by the prior front office considering the prices for backend veteran starting pitching this offseason. Hopefully he can keep this going and give the Tigers what they were expected. A Turnbull-Rodriguez duo, with Tarik Skubal returning this summer, could finally give the rotation a strong group at the top to lead the way.
Not much to say here. Alex Lange looks ready to go and should be taking the highest leverage innings for A.J. Hinch this season. The velocity on his twoseamer has been good, the curveball is still deadly, and his command looks pretty close to midseason form already.
Few of the big contenders for a bullpen role have thrown more than once or twice yet, so it’s a bit early to start sizing up the competition. Will Vest and Jason Foley have been a little wild. Right-handers Brendan White, Kervin Castro, Miguel Castro, and Rule 5 pick Mason Englert have all looked good. Kervin Castro continues to be my favorite of the offseason relief pickups, though Englert has looked good and Edwin Uceta has looked interesting, both the good and the bad. Hard-throwing Elvis Alvarado has been erratic in terms of control as expected, but dominant when he’s locating his high-90’s fastball, while one could describe Trey Wingenter’s early results in similar fashion as he looks to return from an injury plagued pair of seasons in 2021-2022.
Of the lefties added, Jace Fry, Tyler Holton, and Chasen Shreve have all looked serviceable if not impressive. Zach Logue didn’t do much to impress yet either. Shreve still seems like the best bet but we’re not terribly enthusiastic about any of them yet.
Others have struggled out of the gate as well, though once again this isn’t at all unusual early in camp. Rony Garcia looked shaky on Sunday and is far from assured a role on the major league roster. Matt Wisler, the most likely of Scott Harris’ minor league additions, hasn’t recaptured his velocity in the early going but remains a pretty good bet to make the team. Nothing decisive has happened yet, so all these battles are still pretty wide open with plenty of available spots in the pen.
Pitch clock and the new rules
So far the pitch clock has claimed a few victims, and the rules could use a little better clarification, but that’s the whole point of rolling it out this spring and collecting team feedback on how to make the whole process as clear and simple as possible. We’ve seen a few strange instances of hitters called for violations despite being in the batter’s box because the umpire judged that they weren’t focused on the pitcher and ready to hit in time. In other cases, pitchers have waited for hitters and gotten called for violations themselves, so some tweaking to the rules seem in order.
Many smart pitchers and hitters are also trying to push buttons and figure out how to use the clock pressure to their advantage. Max Scherzer has messed with making hitters wait and then quick pitching them, and he’s far from the only one. Likewise players are learning how to use their timeouts, and the pitchers are getting used to the new limits on disengagements. How to hold runners without burning your two pickoff throws is a popular topic of discussion among pitchers right now.
As far as the bigger bases and consequently shortened basepaths, teams are running a little more but things haven’t gotten crazy just yet. The Tigers have eight steals in nine attempts, with Ryan Kreidler and Akil Baddoo leading the way with three and two, respectively. No sign of them running at will, despite the high success rate. Of course, the right players have to get on base.
As far as the shift goes, we saw Joey Gallo homer off Joey Wentz in the second inning, and then pull two balls through the right side of the infield for singles on Sunday. Scientifically, that’s all you need to know there will be some happier left-handed hitters around the league this season. The overall effect may be small, but certain players are going to thrive as a result.
The Tigers are still experimenting with the Pitch Com system to see how best to deploy it. Different pitchers have different opinions on the subject. Eduardo Rodriguez called his own pitches in his last outing and loved it. Manager A.J. Hinch, speaking after the game, said they wouldn’t be doing that again and would be focusing on making the game calling more collaborative. For his part, Matt Boyd let his catcher call the game, but used the system to call his pitch in a few specific occasions when he used his veto power.
The Tigers are going to want things to be more interactive than that between the pitcher, catcher, and coaching staff. There are huge amounts of effort put into advanced scouting hitters and gameplanning, of course. Still, the point is to follow the plan as much as possible. As long as they’re doing that, it probably doesn’t matter who pushes the buttons to call the pitch. It’s understandable, as Rodriguez said, that to call your own game allows for a certain rhythm and decisiveness. Perhaps veteran pitchers will get a little more leeway to do that. How best to use the technology will be an ongoing topic of discussion.